ETERNAL HYDRA presented by Crow’s Theatre in association with Factory Theatre. Written by Anton Piatigorsky, directed by Chris Abraham. January 22nd to February 13th, 2001. Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst. 416-504-9971. http://www.crowstheatre.com
If you were one of those that were sorta disappointed at the lack of dramatic meat for Christopher Plummer to sink his teeth into as the title character of William Luce’s Barrymore, then perhaps I can suggest an antidote. One of the many heads in Anton Piatigorsky’s Eternal Hydra, specifically that of ficitional author Gordius Carbuncle, is coincidentally also a so-called “genius” quickly driving himself to the grave in a hearse called drink. But even that single thread is better textured and nuanced in Hydra, allowing actor David Ferry to devote his tradmarked intensity to exploring the dark crannies of the self-torturing artist with gusto. Imagine what Plummer could have done with a juicier script. It’s true that the seductive facade that Carbuncle projects to his outside world could use a dash of the intangible “greatness” that Plummer seems to exude so effortlessly. But Eternal Hydra more than makes up for it with a taut and muscular script that wrangles together numerous characters, settings and debates while remaining agile enough to sneak back round and tie itself together as the theatre lights dim. The writing is the star of this play, and considering the subject matter that’s quite appropriate.
What makes Eternal Hydra a particularly thrilling piece of theatrical fiction is its multi-layered story immaculately crafted and richly complex . It begins with a young scholar, Vivian Ezra (Liisa Repo-Martell), in a New York publisher’s office as she approaches him to publish Gordius Carbuncle’s lost masterpiece “Eternal Hydra”. Soon after, though, questions are raised regarding the origin and authorship of at least one of the book’s ninety-nine chapters. It seems as if Carbuncle plagiarized at least some portion of his masterpiece from a poor, undiscovered African-American writer. Ezra is adamant that this cannot be the case, accusing the writer who discovered the discrepancy of running a literary smear campaign of some sort (“like they did with Brecht”, she exclaims). The play investigates by zooming into Carbuncle’s Paris, where he acquired the offending chapter, before peeling back yet a further layer to reveal the full truth of Eternal Hydra.
If all this scholar-porn sounds boring, let me assure you that it there’s an emotional core to it. While Piatigorsky makes nods to post-colonial studies, femanist reappropriation as well as literary criticism, there’s an engrossing moral battle that playing out between all the characters. All the characters have such an investment in Carbuncle’s (or whomever’s) story that they define themselves through it. For Ezra it’s not only defending a man she considers a genius, but as she’s literally devoted her life to Carbuncle’s work, she’s also justifying that. To Pauline Newberry (Cara Ricketts) she’s trying to free a long silenced voice of the past whom she identifies with, culturally and emotionally. Everybody is trying to take ownership of the story; morally, contextually, academically and financially. From Ezra’s (and her 1930s counterpart Gwendolyn’s) attempt to own it by putting authoritative scholarly meaning on it, to Carbuncle’s purchasing of it from its original author, to the original author’s retelling of somebody else’s experience. Eternal Hydra, I think, comes down on everybody side and nobody’s side. It seems to demonstrate the inevitability of the retelling, whether it might be considered appropriated, exploited, reclaimed or adapted. The story is like a organism, transforming to stay alive through any means necessary. That’s not to say that the play ignores or justifies the violence that comes with the less-than-ethical borrowing of an experience. As the story is taken from these characters one by one, it almost seems to take away a bit of their soul.
John Thompson’s set uses warm-colored wood which seems to glow ethereally against the mostly dark stage. What light there is beams in stark rectangles, coldly cutting through the space. It works very well, the actors seem encompassed by their world, but the darkness we share makes it feel like they’re not altogether separate from ours. The actors are all fantastic, Ferry and Repo-Martell make a particularly complimentary pair with the former indulging in Irish passion and the former clutching her scholarly British uptightness like a shawl. Ricketts, the sole newcomer to the cast does great as well, bringing a sweetness that I don’t recall from the role when it was inhabited by Karen Robinson. All the actors seem to have such a great respect for the writing, serving it rather than drawing too much focus to their performance. The result is a drama that’s bigger than any of the characters onstage, it’s a story that seems to illustrate the multitudinous connections between our narratives and the rest of the world’s.
One of the big questions in Eternal Hydra is about the nature of genius; whether it exists and what it means. Often in a show that discusses greatness or the greatness of great art there’s that niggling disappointment that the play itself isn’t great, merely good or adequate if that. I didn’t feel that at all during Eternal Hydra. While I, unlike the elderly couple in front of me, think that distance and context needs to be considered before declaring something “genius”, I would like to say that Eternal Hydra is a fantastic piece of writing, a great piece of theatre and perhaps a candidate for greatness.